BioBlitz 2014: Organizing Organisms and Counting Critters

BioBlitz is all about counting species. But who decides what counts as a species? How come domestic cats—Felis catus—are all one species, even though they come in all sorts of colors, patterns and sizes, but American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and common ravens (Corvus corax) are two different species, even though a big crow looks almost the same as a small raven?

The science of identifying and naming organisms and their families is called taxonomy, and people who do it—like Susan McCormick, Dot Norris and Rebecca Johnson in my latest video are called taxonomists.

When you hear Dr. McCormick say she’s an expert in “benthic marine creatures”—things that live in ocean mud—or Dr. Johnson talk about how interesting and beautiful sea slugs are, you might think they’re kind of strange. But the work they do is important, rewarding and even exciting.

There are at least five million species on earth, and maybe far more, but only 1.5 million have been discovered and described. Many of the millions of still-unknown organisms probably produce disease-fighting compounds, or can make crops more productive, or break down pollutants. And those that don’t prove useful to humans still fill an ecological niche that may be crucial to other organisms. But we’ll never learn about them or benefit from them if we don’t even know they exist.

Even worse, species are going extinct faster than they have in millions of years, mostly because of habitat loss. So the small number of taxonomists have their work cut out for them.

With such an exciting and important challenge to society, you might think young people are lining up to be taxonomists. Actually you probably don’t think that at all. You’ve spoken to young people, so you know the field of “taxonomy” probably ranks below “professional duct cleaner.” As a result, many of the world’s leading experts on various types of organisms are 70 or older and have no one picking up the torch.

Perhaps the best thing these annual BioBlitzes could achieve would be to help inspire a new generation of energetic young people to get excited about exploring the diversity of life on earth—to catch what world-famous entomologist and taxonomist E. O. Wilson calls biophilia: the love of living things.

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